Most parents are eager to do the best job they can raising their children. In our parenting groups, when we ask moms what qualities they feel make for a good parent, some will joyfully describe their experiences with their own mothers or fathers when they were children. They will speak of parents who were generally patient, present, calm, able to hold loving boundaries, and supportive. They tell us they want to emulate much of how they were raised with their own children, and they feel they have a solid roadmap – the example of their own parents – with which to do so. These are the lucky ones.
But as often as we hear about these positive scenarios, there are just as many stories of childhood experiences that weren’t quite so rosy. These moms share their desire, to varying degrees, to “undo” the parenting they experienced in their own childhood now that they themselves are the parent. While these moms very much want to do right by their children, they often also have the added layer – whether they are aware or not – of wanting to heal parts of themselves through correcting the “mistakes” of their parents. This intention is quite noble, but the journey that unfolds from that intention is a daunting one, and one that most parents – even if they are willing – aren’t sure how to navigate. But willing or not, facing the emotional wounds of childhood is something that every parent will inevitably have to do. The choice is whether you do so consciously or unconsciously.
Your family of origin has a huge influence on how you parent. Childhood events such as divorce, loss of a parent, a mentally ill or unstable parent, an alcoholic or drug addicted parent or just a generally chaotic environment can leave deep wounds for children.
Whether you experienced a onetime trauma or multiple difficult or scary situations throughout your childhood, you may be trying to manage your own kids with a lot of anxiety and reactivity. But research has shown that the biggest predictor of how you will fare as a parent – how present and available you are able to be to your child – is your ability to make sense of your own history. It doesn’t matter whether that history was calm and pleasant or painful and abusive; as long as you are able to examine it, understand your own reactivity and patterns and therefore bring awareness to your own choices as a mom, you’ll be able to parent in a much calmer, more balanced, and healthy way.
You can’t change the past, but your willingness to face the pain you may still carry about past events allows you to break the cycle of unhealthy family patterns.
One of the easiest ways to notice your own triggers is to see where you become overly reactive with your kids. You react because you were taught, at a very young age, that the world wasn’t safe in some way or that the adults in your life who were supposed to take care of you weren’t able to do that in the way you needed them to. The fear that results produces a neurological fight-flight-freeze response; the most primitive part of your brain believes there is genuine danger – when you’re a child, your survival is at stake – and may react with loads of anxiety or anger. Similar experiences that repeat over time create neural pathways – or habits – that shape how you then move through relationships and life, so anything that reminds you of those early painful events will cause you to be similarly reactive. When this happens as a parent, you lose the calm rationality of the more mature parts of your brain – in other words, the adult – and instead take the perspective of the terrified child.
Normal, healthy children are supposed to challenge parents in all kinds of ways as they grow. From the baby who wakes every few hours as an infant and the toddler who shouts “mine, mine, mine!” to the child who freaks out when he doesn’t get a toy at his brother’s birthday party and the teen who rebels and does something incredibly stupid, kids are going to test you, cross lines, and make loads of mistakes. The question is, can you address these normal childhood behaviors in calm and appropriate ways that will help your child to feel contained, or will you react in ways that will frighten them, shame them or disregard how they are feeling, leaving them with their own emotional wounds?
On the other end of the spectrum are parents who are so fiercely protective of their own children that they will push the pendulum in the polar opposite direction than what they feel they experienced as a child, which can also breed pathology. A mom in one of our parenting groups had a mother who was overly strict and emotionally abusive when she was a child. When this woman became a mother, her unconscious mission was to avoid creating that relationship with her own child in every way she could. Attempting to do the opposite of what had been done to her, she was overly permissive and avoided setting healthy limits on her child’s behavior. But the result wreaked havoc on her family. She was unable to have a conversation with her spouse or sleep in the same bed with him because her son demanded she sleep with him instead. Her child’s behavior was out of control both at home and at school; he ruled the roost, and both mom and dad were resentful and overwhelmed. While this mom had every intention of doing better than her own mom had done, she wasn’t doing better. The pendulum had swung so far in the opposite direction that her child wasn’t being parented appropriately and wasn’t getting the containment and security he needed from his mother. We helped her recognize that the ideal was certainly not neglect or abuse, but it wasn’t overly permissive parenting either. In her willingness to recognize her own triggers, this mother was able to become nurturing and patient with her son while at the same time holding appropriate limits and boundaries – and to realize that creating loving boundaries was not re-creating abuse.
Whichever side of this equation you fall on – strongly triggered by irritation and anger or strongly triggered by a need to protect – “good enough” is the goal here. No parent is perfect, and we will all make mistakes. But good enough parents do their best to model good enough behavior, responses and boundaries, and anyone can learn how to do this with the right tools and supports – and practice.
If these issues are difficult for you to examine on your own, talking with other parents who also had a difficult past can be very helpful. A parenting group can serve as wonderful support system for women to share openly without judgment and to gain perspective. You may also want to see a therapist, rabbi or clergy member who can help you gain some perspective. These are all ways of taking care of yourself, and if you had a particularly painful past, taking care of yourself is not an indulgence, it is a necessity. Remember, on the airplane you’re supposed to put the oxygen on yourself first, then take care of your child.
While examining and understanding your past may seem like a daunting task, it’s also an opportunity to heal longstanding childhood wounds and to create a clear intention for your own children and family – one that includes an abundance of love, safety, and peace.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR YOUR OWN CIRCLE OF MOMS
Why not have a get-together with your own mom friends and keep the conversation going? Here are some questions to get you started. You can also join us each Thursday at 10 am PST on our Facebook page for a virtual mom group where we’ll talk about all that’s on your mind and in your heart! Join us!
1) What do you remember from your childhood about the relationship you had with your parents? What do you think the legacy of their parenting is, and how is that legacy influencing the way you parent your own children?
2) How can you create a different experience for your child without going too far to one extreme or another? What characteristics of your own parents might you like to emulate, and what would you like to do differently?
3) What kind of support do you need as you begin to address these triggers?
“There Goes the Motherhood,” a docu-series that follows six moms through an eight-week parenting group, airs on Wednesdays at 10/9c on Bravo. For more information, please visit sleepyplanet.com.
Jill Spivack, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist. Jennifer Waldburger, MSW, is a meditation and mindfulness teacher. Jill and Jennifer are co-founders of Sleepy Planet Parenting, where they draw from their background in child development and family systems to offer groups and private sessions that help families thrive. Their publications include The Sleepeasy Solution and Calm Mama, Happy Baby.” Please visit sleepyplanet.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter.